Two students wax poetic about old verse

Two students from Wenlai Middles School who can recite over 800 poems entered "Chinese Poetry Congress", a game show on CCTV as representatives of Shanghai students.


A food delivery courier triumphed over a master from Tsinghua University to win a television contest that requires participants to recite Chinese poetry from memory.

“Chinese Poetry Congress,” a popular game show aired on China Central Television, wrapped up its third season early this month with the dark horse victory. That has spurred even more interest in the program.

 Qian Ziang, 12, and Li Yunyun, 14, both from Wenlai Middle School in Minhang District, participated in the third season.

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Li Yunyuan (left) and Qian Zi’ang pose before an appearance on a TV game show involving poetry prowess. They are the only middle students from Shanghai who entered in the national final of the third season of the program.

The show is casting a new light on traditional Chinese poetry and culture. It’s not easy to memorize old poetry because of changes in language. To some, it seems strange to memorize poetry at all since one can easily look up the verse online.

For Qian and Li, traditional poetry has become an essential part of their daily lives.

Qian is a bookworm interested in history. His day wouldn’t be complete without reading a few traditional poems, he said. He has disciplined himself to learn two poems by heart every day since the sixth grade.

He told the judges that he has read hundreds of books. His favorites include “Records of the Grand Historian,” written in the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (AD 386-581), and “Zizhi Tongjian,” or “Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance,” which records China’s history from 403 BC to AD 959, covering 16 dynasties and spanning across almost 1,400 years. Chairman Mao is said to have read it over 17 times.

Li competed on the program with her father as a family entry. Qian was champion of the children’s group in the second season.

“Knowing that so many people are enchanted by traditional poetry encourages me greatly and means I’m not alone,” Qian said. “And it inspires me to keep learning and delving into poetry. Competing on TV strengthened my ability to deal with pressure and taught me that experience is more important than results.”

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Qian in his reading room

Li managed to stay pretty calm during the program.

“I’m pretty satisfied with my performance, but my dad could do better,” she said, with a smile.

 She said she picked up the book “300 Tang Poems” out of boredom one summer, and has been mesmerized by poetry ever since. She estimates that she can recite about 800 poems by heart now.

“They offer me mental calm because you can always find a poem to fit your mood,” Li said. “When I feel lonely, I read ‘Drinking Alone with the Moon’ by Li Bai. When I’m discouraged, I read ‘Lyrics to the Melody of a Pacified Storm’ by Su Shi.”

Qian divides poem into three categories. The first are poems that are well written and famous. The second is lesser-known verse, and the third are the poems that nobody reads. To read from all three levels, he said, is to be a scholar.

 “I have many friends now with whom I can share my passion for poetry,” he said. “We communicate frequently on WeChat, and play games like poetry solitaire.”

Both teenagers are also music aficionados, finding similarities in poetry and music.

Qian plays the second violin in Shanghai No. 1 Youth String Orchestra. He said he sees parallels between Western classical music and Chinese poems.

“Take Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony No. 6’ for example,” he said. “It communicates the same mood as the poem ‘Late Autumn’ by Liu Yong. Both works talk about nostalgia for the past and communicate in language that the masses can understand.”

 Li said she prefers New Age Chinese music.

 “Ci is a genry of poetry developed from the lyrics of popular songs in ancient times,” she said. “New Age Chinese music use poems, ci and lines of irregular lengths. I memorized ‘Pipa Tune’ which has 88 lines, by listening to a song. This type of music is growing more popular as people begin to cherish our culture.”

Both students hold Qian Zhongshu, a late scholar specialized in Chinese culture and literature, as a role model.

 “Qian is distinguished for his broad knowledge of both Chinese and Western culture, and that’s the kind of person I want to be,” said Li.


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Li in traditional clothes in her school



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